The year following my grandfather's death in 1975, I found myself in a mystifying place: the NAS Patuxent River airfield dedication in his honor. The ceremony touched on highlights from Vice Admiral Frederick "Trap" Trapnell's long career in naval aviation, which, even to my untrained ear, sounded consequential: getting the Hellcat into WWII, salvaging the development of the Corsair, first Navy pilot to fly a jet, guiding the Navy through the complex transition to jets, establishing the Test Pilot School at PAX River.
Why else would they name the airfield after him?
Yet, standing there on the rain-soaked tarmac of the newly dedicated Trapnell Field, warily eyeing the stern bronze plaque erected in memory of this "pioneer test pilot," I felt his loss compounded by the weight of his untold story.
Why had I never heard these things before? How could this man have achieved such an astonishing legacy in naval aviation without ever speaking of his work? Through all those years and countless hours, sailing, playing cribbage, entertaining an enraptured child with meticulous sketches of his favorite avian creature, Diomedia Exulans, how did he get away without saying a word about his own flying career?
The airfield dedication set in motion for me a bewildering array of emotions. I spent the next 40 years searching in vain for the missing pieces of my grandfather's story. So, when my father and I embarked on the improbable journey to write his biography in 2011, a four-year search-and-rescue mission to recover the story that he never told, friends and strangers wanted to know . . .
In 2010, I found myself seated at a table of virtual strangers who were engaged in lively conversation except for the elderly gentleman sitting soberly across from me, arms folded. "John," I ventured, "what brought you to California?"
Perking up, John began to describe his long career with Grumman Aircraft, beginning in 1953 on Long Island, down to Patuxent River, and eventually to Ventura County, where we were at the time. "That's interesting," I said. "My grandfather would have been at Grumman Long Island the same time you were."
Discussion ensued about my last name being Tibbitts.
"Well actually, my maiden name was Trapnell."
John leaned across the table. "What did you say?"
"My grandfather was Frederick Trapnell."
"I – KNEW – YOUR – GRANDFATHER!" John picked up his chair, brought it around to my side of the table, and shared this story.
During his first few weeks on the job, Grumman brought in all new desks for the engineers on the big open floor, but they didn't have one for him, so they brought an old desk out of storage somewhere—a big mahogany executive style desk, just the kind John thought might well have belonged to someone like Bob Hall or Roy Grumman. He began cleaning out the things that accrue in an old desk, came to the lower file drawer, lifted it up, and discovered underneath a sheaf of papers.
"Do you know what it was?" John looked like an excited kid. "It was your grandfather's flight test notes from the Hellcat!
We looked at each other in stunned silence. Now, if there's one set of test notes I'd really like to see, it's those. And I'm trying to wrap my head around the fact that we are now a continent and nearly 60 years removed from John's discovery in the old desk drawer. And I'm talking to the guy who held those notes in his hand.
John described his dilemma at the time. "Can I keep them? Do I need to give them to my boss? I looked up and saw your grandfather standing across the room and knew what I had to do. I walked over and said, 'Admiral, just found these in my desk and thought you might like to have them.'"
My grandfather looked at the notes and looked at John. A moment of significance passes between the two men as they silently reckon with the import of that storied airplane
"Well thank you, John. They don't make them like this any more, do they?" By then, test reports had grown from sheaves to volumes. And he walked away, notes in hand.
I called my father after the meeting. "You won't believe the story I just heard. Where do you suppose those notes are? Could they be in the box in San Diego?"
Our quest for the notes took us to the keeper of the last remaining box of my grandfather's things, our friend Bill Allen. In the course of retrieving that box, Bill said, "Dana, if you and your father don't tell this story, it will never be told!"
We never did find Trap's Hellcat test notes, but my father and I began the unlikely journey to finally tell the story my grandfather never told, the story of a man who has been called the "godfather of modern naval aviation."
CAF SoCal Wing presents a Living History Event Saturday, June 10, featuring local author Dana Trapnell Tibbitts, who will share the nearly lost history of the man who has been called the "godfather of modern naval aviation" and the "premier test pilot of all time." This slide presentation begins at 11 a.m. at the CAF Museum at the Camarillo Airport, 455 Aviation Dr., and is open to the public. For more information, click here.
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